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Sunil Abraham: Copyright amendment: bad, but could have been much worse

The changes to the Copyright Act protect the disabled - but are restrictive about cover versions and web freedom

Sunil Abraham 

When the Copyright (Amendment) Act, 2012, was passed unanimously by the Lok Sabha on May 22, it meant that there was little reason for celebration, some not-so-great news, and a lot of pretty bad news.

The only real reason for unqualified celebration is the amendment’s introduction of a robust exception for the disabled. It is bleeding-edge policy formulation, as it is right up there alongside the Treaty for the Visually Impaired currently being negotiated at the World Intellectual Property Organisation (WIPO). The Indian exception is more robust: first, it is disability-neutral, unlike the treaty which only addresses the needs of the print-impaired; and second, it is works-neutral, unlike the treaty which only addresses books and printed works. In brief, given the very limited circulation of copyrighted works amongst the disabled, they now can convert inaccessible works to accessible formats and share them with each other on a non-profit basis. No royalty needs to be paid to the rights-holders for this conversion and the resultant access. Other reasons to celebrate include the newly introduced exception for non-commercial lending and the extension of fair dealing (or fair use) to all works.

Now for some middling news. The Digital Rights Management provision makes it an offence punishable with a fine and a two-year jail term to circumvent “effective technological measures” (also called Technological Protection Measures) and remove “rights management information” (RMI). The provision protects public interest since it does not allow rights-holders to claim rights unavailable under copyright law, and does not prevent consumers and citizens from benefiting from the various fair dealing (or fair use) exceptions and limitations.

Unfortunately, the provision mandates onerous record-keeping for those providing circumvention technologies, and also does not insist that the rights-holder provide the means for circumvent when the consumer or citizen legitimately needs to do so.

The first piece of bad news is that an inadequate “safe harbour” provision has been introduced for Internet intermediaries. Like the Information Technology Act, the Copyright Act has also gotten the configuration of the intermediary liability regime wrong. This was the opportunity to finally protect common carriers, platforms for social media and commons-based peer-production (such as free software and open content). In short, search engines are finally legal in India, and so are ISPs, virtual private network providers and content delivery networks.

But unfortunately, social media platforms such as Facebook and peer-production platforms like Wikipedia are not afforded sufficient immunity to thrive as real-time participatory platforms. The take-down procedure is designed to provide instant relief to rights-holders, as intermediaries are supposed to remove content immediately. They have the option of reinstating content if the take-down notice is not followed within three weeks by a court order. This mechanism will have a chilling effect on free speech — given that Indian internet service providers very obviously privilege the interests of intellectual property rights-holders over those of the ISPs’ customers — as most recently illustrated by their over-compliance with certain John Doe court orders emerging from the Madras High Court.

The second piece of bad news is the extension of the term of protection for photographs. It has gone from being “sixty years after publication” to “sixty years after the death of the photographer”. Sixty years from publication was already in excess of the Agreement on Trade-Related aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (the TRIPS Agreement). Now we are in excess of WIPO Copyright Treaty requirements, even though India is not a signatory. The possibility of grandchildren earning royalties does not serve as an incentive for shutterbugs to take more photos or better photos. It is not even clear if one can monetise the average photo after the first decade. Therefore, the global public domain has been substantially impoverished, without any evidence that this will make the photographers reciprocally wealthier.

It does not stop there. In the age of hip-hop, trance, jhankar beats and turntables, one would have hoped that our law-makers would at least get the provision for “cover versions” or “remixes” right. Cover versions in India are doubly useful both in terms of aesthetics and profits — and yet the relevant provision can only be described as mediaeval. Cover versions can be produced only after a gap of five years; they have to be restricted to the same medium as the original; payment from them must be made in advance for 5,000 copies (should all those who sang commercially viable cover violations of “Kolaveri Di” be considered lawbreakers?); and there are strict limits on what are acceptable alterations to the original. The “alterations” have to be “reasonable” and “technically necessary”. Today, affordable yet sophisticated multimedia technologies allow teenagers to build professional sound recording studios in their bedrooms — and our government is seeking to restrict them to boring word-for-word and note-for-note covers.

And it gets worse. Bowing to pressure from foreign publishers’ associations, the government deleted the “parallel importation” provision at the last minute. The inclusion of this provision would have made it clear that works reproduced with the rights-holders’ permission in other countries could be imported into India. Foreign publishers and their lobbyists went all-out with a propaganda campaign predicting a dystopia filled with pirated books, surplus books dumped from overseas and starving, uncompensated authors. Had our government not caved, this clarification in law would have gone a long way in dismantling distribution monopolies and made the market much more competitive. The resultant increase in choice and reduction in cost would have benefited everyone. Human Resources Development Minister Sibal promised both Houses during the passage of the amendment that he would revisit this, and let’s hope he does so — especially for our libraries and our second-hand book stores, and for the students and disabled amongst us.


 

The writer is at the Centre for Internet and Society, Bangalore. sunil@cis-india.org  

First Published: Sun, June 10 2012. 00:34 IST
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